Elimination Eval: New York Islanders

Considering we’re a Rangers fan centered platform here, this will surely be a fun one to discuss. Up next on Elimination Evals, our hated rivals on Long Island, the New York Islanders. Strangely enough, there was a good portion of the fanbase actually rooting for the Islanders to at the very least, make it a series as to prolong the journey for our potential next round opponent. Alas, they didn’t do Rangers fans many favors in that regard. Despite the longest overtime we’ve had in a first round that surprisingly hasn’t had many long nights, the Islanders didn’t give the Hurricanes a run for their money in the slightest. 

Believe it or not, I actually went with the Islanders in seven games when making my first round predictions which in hindsight, may have been banking on a version of the Islanders completely different from what we saw in these playoffs. Historically, this is a very “shut down” type of team that plays effective, “boring” hockey but gets the job done, typically with the help of strong goaltending. Not only did they fail to execute that against the Hurricanes, but they ran into some strong goaltending on the other end of the ice in Frederik Anderson. This was far from their end all be all of the series as we’ll get into, but if we’ve learned one thing from this Islanders team under Patrick Roy is the time for an identity shift could be here. 

Game 1 got off to perhaps what was the more anticipated expectation for how this series would play out. The Hurricanes got an early goal off a nice shot by Evgeny Kuznetsov through a Stefan Noesen screen but the Islanders answered seven minutes later off a nice effort from Kyle MacLean. The game stayed tied through the second period but another early goal from Noesen gave Carolina the lead that set them up for the empty net goal to win the game, 3-1. Nothing wrong with how that one played out but Game 2 would prove to be the low point for the Islanders. 

A pair of goals late in the first period of Game 2 gave the Islanders some momentum which was only further solidified by a power play goal from Anders Lee early in the second. A 3-0 lead more than halfway through the game, what could possibly go wrong? Welllll. Carolina would go on to win the game 5-3. That type of collapse just can not happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially early in a series when you’re already down by a game. Game 1 wasn’t a bad loss by any means either, if the Islanders managed to hold on to some variation of that lead and win Game 2 there’s no reason this series couldn’t go the seven games I and several others predicted. 

Nevertheless, the pressure was on for the Islanders to bounce back in Game 3 but after allowing two goals in the first period, they just wouldn’t find a way to fully get back into things. Game 4 would be the high point as the score was tied 2-2 after sixty minutes of play which brought on the first and as of the time of writing this, only double-overtime of the playoffs this year. Both goaltenders were dialed in through the first overtime which gave some indications that fans would be in for a long night. 

It wouldn’t take long in the second period of bonus hockey before the Islanders caught a break. A good ol’ fashioned slap shot from Robert Bortuzzo at the point would redirect off Mathew Barzal’s stick to sneak past Frederik Anderson to give the Islanders a thrilling double-overtime win in Game 4. Still, there was a lot of work to be done if the Islanders really wanted to get back in this thing and Carolina went into Game 5 understanding their assignment. A pair of goals within the first three minutes pretty much took the wind out of the Islanders sails. They quickly answered with a power play goal but Carolina kept pressing. 

Despite trailing by two after the first, the Islanders had a big second period to tie the game up, 3-3 but it wouldn’t be enough. Carolina was the better third period team here and came up with two goals within 10 seconds to put this thing to bed with the help of an empty net goal in the final minutes. Sure, the Islanders had some moments across these five games but their inability to maintain momentum after potentially game-altering situations really played into their downfall. Looking back at this series, you have to wonder what went wrong for the Islanders and while there are plenty of things to break down here, it all comes back to one major issue for them this season and that’s Ilya Sorokin. 

Sorokin, who is expected to be the Islanders’ franchise netminder, had a tough year which led to the coaching staff riding the hot hand into playoffs with veteran back-up, Semyon Varlamov. Sorokin put up a record of 25-19-12 throughout the regular season, allowing an average of just over three goals against on a nightly basis. His save percentage, would finish just barely over .900 which certainly isn’t his standard nor the standard most people expect of him. Now was goaltending the reason the Islanders lost this series? Absolutely not. However, if you have Sorokin at the very top of his game, maybe he steals you that win in Game 2 or doesn’t allow for a third period collapse in a series clinching game. Nevertheless, the Islanders are not in a position to consider the ifs and buts, only the what now? 

You have to guess that the Islanders are going to be extremely disappointed with this outcome and view this season as underachieving. While they just barely squeezed into third place in the Metropolitan Division, this is a team that is still looking to contend despite an ever-aging core group that is still under contract for the better half of the next decade. This brings us to one of their biggest questions going into the off-season; Is this the end of their “identity”?

For what honestly feels like forever at this point, the Islanders have run a fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck commonly referred to as their “identity line”. With each of them being in the back nine of their careers, two of them being on expiring contracts and one of them making the jump to their top line, you have to wonder if this is it for at least that portion of this team’s core. As I mentioned earlier, many of this team’s key pieces are still under contract through the rest of the 2020’s. With that in mind, this group will more likely than not start next season looking very similar to how they finished this one, but there are still some things to keep in mind. 

In addition to Clutterbuck and Martin, the Islanders have Mike Reilly (who played a big role for them in their brief playoff stint), Robert Bortuzzo, Sebastian Aho, Karson Kuhlman and Robin Salo as their key pending UFA’s. Realistically, if the Islanders decide to let all of them go, they’ll still have enough NHL quality pieces to run a full lineup back next season but if they want to stay competitive, there’s plenty of room for improvement on that roster. You have to keep in mind that this team is among the top three oldest teams in the league. If you want to keep this core together fine, but you have to bring in some younger guys that are going to spark something for this team. 

At the moment, this is what a projected line-up for the Islanders would look like without any additions:

Cizikas - Horvat - Barzal

Fasching - Nelson - Palmieri

Lee - Pageau - Engvall 

Holmstrom - MacLean - Wahlstrom/Gauthier

Romanov - Dobson

Pelech - Pulock

Bolduc - Mayfield*

*missed most of this season with an ankle injury

Seasoned Veteran (might be an understatement) General Manager Lou Lamiorello has plenty of work to do this summer as he also has a handful of RFA’s in need of new deals. That list includes Oliver Wahlstrom, Simon Holmstrom, Ruslan Iskhakov, Kyle MacLean and Dennis Cholowski. Wahlstrom could be one of the biggest “x-factors” for the Islanders plans next season as another year has come and gone where the former 11th overall pick in 2018 hasn’t become the player they were likely hoping him to be. We’ve seemingly reached a point where the team would rather deploy Hudson Fasching in a top-six role and pay Pierre Engvall for the next seven years than trust Wahlstrom in those positions which could create some question marks regarding his future with this team. 

One player I liked a lot for the Isles in the postseason was Kyle MacLean. He brought a lot of energy into that bottom-six, capitalized on some chances and proved to be an effective bottom six forward in the NHL. Perhaps he could be a centerpiece in the next variation of a potential identity line for this team but the days of Martin and Clutterbuck could be over. Martin found himself as an odd man out as the series came down to the wire and at 36 years old, Clutterbuck’s best days could be behind him as well. At the same time, I wouldn’t rule out them returning on a team friendly deal in a smaller role if they’re looking to keep their careers going for at least another year or two.

It’s all well and good if the Islanders want to remain competitive with this core but they may want to continue to play trade deadlines more conservatively considering they have one of the thinnest collections of prospects around the league. They have their first round pick this year which is a good start but this organization is really going to have to start drafting well in the coming years if they want this to be more of a retool than a full on rebuild. In terms of “prospects” they really only have a pair of right wingers in Matthew Maggio and William Dufour and neither of which are really high potential. 

Bringing on Patrick Roy as Head Coach has promise to be an exciting cornerstone for this franchise. However, it’s really going to take some strategic moves from management to continue to improve this team. Both Kyle Palmieri and Brock Nelson will enter the final year of their contracts next season and if things don’t work out in the Islander’s favor come the holiday’s, a conversation regarding trading them could come up. As far as potential trades go, I could see the Islanders moving Wahlstrom for a change of scenery in a potential “hockey trade” but outside of that, if history has taught us anything, expect Lamiorello and the Islanders to pretty much stay put unless things start to hit the fan. 

Barring any coming extensions, the Islanders will have roughly five and a half million dollars in salary cap space to work with which could restock the cupboards enough to keep them competitive but time is going to continue to work against their favor. It’s no secret that Lamiorello runs a tight ship and plays his cards so close to his chest he can barely even see them. Historically speaking, he’s not one to jump into any major decisions at the start of free agency either so it could be a while before we start to see which direction he takes this team but regardless, it’s bound to be an interesting summer on the Island.